…and they tell the story and they pass on the story…
Kenyan Professor, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, is perhaps best known for an advocacy of African languages in writing literature. He has produced work in almost every genre of writing from novels to essay, short stories, plays to memoirs. In The House Of The Interpreter, the latest of three memoirs Thiong’o has released, is elegantly written but begins on a shattering note:
Somewhere in April 1955, James Ngugi – who would later become Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – returns home from boarding at Alliance High School. He soon find out that it is not the home he left behind in January, but rather a homestead reduced to a “rubble of burnt, dry mud, splinters of wood, and grass. [His] mother’s hut and [his] brothers house on stilts…razed to the ground.”
What happened? A process of displacement named villagisation undertaken by the British colonial government. Thiong’o details that “villagisation was a mass fraud, often giving land from the already poor to the relatively rich, and from the families of guerilla fighters to those loyal to the colonial state.”
Of course, this process had tangible and intangible effects on the affected families.
All of this was done “in the name of protecting them against attack, but in fact, to [isolate] and [starve] the anticolonial guerillas in the mountains,” the Mau Mau, of which Thiong’o’s elder brother, Good Wallace, was a guerilla. For this, his family suffered: Thiong’o suffered several bouts of psychological torture, their mother was incarcerated at a military post for three months under interrogation, and Charity, Good Wallace’s wife, was arrested and incarcerated in a maximum security prison, “accused of organising food and clothes for the guerillas in the mountains.”
Prior to reading this book, the fact that Kenyans also, at some point, needed to have passbooks to be able to move from one region to the other, just like in apartheid South Africa, was unknown to me.
What is interesting in Kenya’s case is the internal passport business was limited to the Gikuyu (to which Thiong’o belonged), Embu and Meru people. “By giving the illusion that some communities were more privileged, the state hoped to buy their loyalty,” Thiong’o writes. I couldn’t help but connect this to what Belgian colonizers also did in Rwanda – further inflaming ethnic tensions by distributing identity cards that stated each individual’s’ ethnicity – and then come to the conclusion (yet again) that most of the present day conflicts among ethnic groups across the continent can be traced to European colonization.
Alliance High School, Thiong’o’s sanctuary, is where the young writer fell deeply in love with “the magic of literature.” But a sense of alienation heightened within because the kind of literature he was exposed to was “exclusively written in the English experience of time and space.”
While reading, I also learned that Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country was one of the most impactful books Thiong’o ever read. He writes that the book “whet my appetite for books that reflected my social reality.” Upon reading it, he “even wondered if Alan Paton was black. [For] how else could he capture so well the tone and the imagery of African speech?”
One noteworthy thing about this memoir is how most of the characters and events in Thiong’o’s books are actually fictionalised versions of real life events he experienced. For instance, Thiong’o’s brother, Good Wallace, decides to give up fighting after escaping death by police bullets and buries his gun under a Mugamo tree. In “Matigari,” the book opens with the protagonist retrieving a gun he once buried after giving up a life of fighting.
There are spiritual upheavals Thiong’o joins a spiritual cabal to win souls for Christ but questions what Christianity, Jesus and God are really all about.
Thiong’o is well known for his unwavering anti-imperialist stance. He writes in the memoir about an encounter during his first year at Alliance High School where the “anti-imperialist is born.” A debate was set in motion on whether “Western Education Has Done More Harm Than Good In Africa.” Thiong’o writes of this moment, “I felt that frivolity was winning out over the seriousness the subject demanded. I raised my hand. I did not have the eloquence of words and smoothness of delivery, but I had the clarity of passion. I had a pencil in the air. All eyes were fixed on it. I told a story: A person comes to your house. He takes your land. In exchange he gives you a pencil. Is this fair exchange? I would rather he kept his pencil and I kept my land.” Thiong’o’’s humane, gentle yet firm soul shines throughout the entire book.
At least one reason why this book is recommendable? Well, I’ll tell you like Thiong’o’s mother told him and his brother when they asked her how she knew the ages of the fig trees in the field:
…because people have lived here longer and they tell the story and they pass on the story and we add to the story.